Come see my dancing congregation
It's said of Charles Finney, a man of great fervour and strong views, that on one occasion when the choir was done singing he was to lead the assembly in prayer. Greatly vexed he prayed; "O Lord, we do not doubt that thou hast known and understood all that thy gifted servants have sung but we haven't caught a blessed word."
I'm half afraid to say what I'm about to say because if my experience is typical, what we hear from most pulpits is the same tired moralising week after week after week; the kind of thing we're familiar with since childhood. There isn't a lot said that challenges us to reflect deeply on our faith, that asks us to go beyond the same way of thinking about what we feel in our bones are massive truths. Those of us who dare to be teachers (see James 3:1) mustn't make the fathomless depths of truth about God an excuse for not making the effort to dive deep and bring up riches. It's true and a right thing to say, "We'll never get to the bottom of it," but to use that as an excuse for dishing up the same moralistic soup week after week and year after year—consigning us all to the status of spiritual minors—is hardly excusable. Should it be said that "living" the truth that we know is more important than the amount of truth we know, I would have thought that to be correct; but I would also insist that a richer understanding of great truths enriches the life, expands the vision so that "living" becomes more Godlike, more Christlike and more in line with the Holy Spirit. It's true that a richer understanding of truth is no guarantee of a richer life but sustained and contented ignorance is a guarantee of something. Teachers and congregations should mutually encourage one another not only to love and good works but to a joyful and serious attempt to think God's thoughts after him, which, being a face of worship, will help produce love and good works that please the Holy Father. Psalm 1 is not placed at the entrance to the "book of praises" (Psalms) for nothing.
But having said all that, surely we should take Finney's response to the splendid but not intelligible performance of the choir as more than a hint if we are speakers or authors or if we are leading an assembly in public reading or prayer.
Who can say "amen" to a prayer muttered into the pray-er's shirt-pocket or take as heresy or orthodoxy, helpful or a hindrance, what a speaker has prepared if it's understandable only to theology professors?
Colin Morris tells us of a young Oxford curate who transfixed his congregation of farm-labourers and chambermaids with this rhetorical question, "Some of you are probably saying, 'So much for Cyril of Jerusalem, but what about Theodore of Mopseustria?'" Certainly, as Morris insists, the congregation (assuming he had one the following week) would never accuse this preacher of "talking down" to them but at some point "relevance" must enter.
If we are to lead an assembly in prayer we should see to it that the assembly hears it. If we are to sing our faith before an assembly we should see to it that the assembly can hear what we are confessing. If we are to preach/teach with a congregation we should see to it that it is within their reach—even if it takes a bit of effort. Challenge is right but the wise preacher will take into account the limitations of his hearers (John 16:12).
The event actually happened in South America, told by a minister who worked there. He sat in his vehicle waiting for the return of some friends and a poor woman came asking him to come see her dancing dogs—one way to get a few pennies. He didn't wish to but she was so insistent that he gave in. To her little ramshackle house, out to the back where four or five dogs were kept, skin and bone they were, pleading by their very body language they were, and she, with a piece of hard bread held always just above them, out of their reach showed her "dancing dogs". Poor woman, poor animals—distressing at it is we can understand it.
"Come see my dancing congregation."
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing to post from his website, theabidingword.com.